Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma | Chandigarh | Updated: June 8, 2020 10:07:55 pm
Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said he may be of mild disposition like many other people from his state, but he cracks the whip when required. (File photo)
There is no bigger sin than exploiting a pandemic that is claiming so many lives for monetary gains, says Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur, as he speaks to The Indian Exptress about his ”swift action” in the PPE scam, the perception that he was mild, and the recent party survey that ranked Himachal as No 1 among the NDA-ruled states.
Excerpts from the interview:
IE: It is Day 1 of the reopening of hospitality industry in many parts of the country. What are your thoughts considering that tourism has never been hit so hard in the history of Himachal?
Jai Ram Thakur: That is true. Tourists from all over India flock to Himachal, but this summer we don’t have a single visitor. Although we have ourselves imposed restrictions, it is a big setback to our economy, and to lakhs of people dependent on tourism. In fact, tourism has been impacted the world over as people don’t find it safe to venture out. But I hope once the Covid impact lessens, we will be able to get back to normal.
IE: You spoke about turning Himachal into a quarantine destination but it drew a lot of criticism.
Jai Ram Thakur: People were perhaps not able to get my point. I did not imply that we should get Covid positive patients here. All I meant was that people who are not comfortable with home or institutional quarantine can stay in our health and wellness centres by paying a price. Similarly, as business activity picks up, visitors coming here for work can also avail of the quarantine facilities at our hotels.
IE: Are you giving any special concessions to the tourism industry?
Jai Ram Thakur: We have waived off water and power bills for now. We have also set up a task force and a Cabinet sub-committee to examine how else we can help this sector. At least 60,000 employees are associated with this sector. Homestays that had become a big source of earning for families, especially in Manali and Dharamshala, are also lying closed. We are aware of their distress and are working out ways to help them.
IE: How have you ramped up your hospital inventory during the lockdown?
Jai Ram Thakur: Though we have only 413-odd cases out of which 180 are active, we have ramped up our capacity. Most of our new cases are returnees who we brought back from cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh. But they have to undergo a mandatory quarantine followed by a test, and only then can they return home. Though our numbers are rising, the pace is slowing down and the recovery rate is improving. We have an exhaustive plan that includes separate Covid care centres for asymptomatic patients and more gravely-ill patients. Medical College, Mer Chowk, alone has 300 beds for severely ill patients; medical colleges at Shimla and near Dharamshala are also equipped to handle serious patients. In all, we can admit 5,000 patients at one go right now.
We have bought a consignment of ventilators but have sought 60 more from the central government. Even though we have started tendering, HLL (Hindustan Lever Limited) is giving us free PPEs certified by the ICMR. Initially, we had shortage of PPE kits and N-95 masks but now we are prepared. Earlier, we used to test 120-odd samples a day, now we can test over 1500.
The Himachal active case finding process was appreciated by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi at all-CM video meetings. Under this project, we sent 16,000 Asha workers to conduct a door-to-door survey of the entire population of Himachal and provide us a database of people with vulnerabilities. PM asked other CMs to follow suit.
IE: What about terminally ill patients and others requiring tertiary care?
Jai Ram Thakur: We have reopened OPDs at Indira Gandhi Medical College Hospital, Shimla. All our OPDs are now open because we realised that more people are dying of other health issues and our Covid load was less. Tanda Medical College is also open. Be it a kidney patient, heart patient or trauma cases, we are treating them all. We have been successful in isolating Covid patients, and there is no community spread in Himachal.
IE: What about the pharma hub of Baddi?
Jai Ram Thakur: Baddi is Asia’s biggest pharma hub. It did not stop functioning even when the cases spiked in Himachal. We have held a couple of meetings with the industry to help them tide over this crisis. The HCQ (Hydroxychloroquine) manufactured here is not only being supplied within the country but overseas as well. We have deferred the power charges of the units here. Earlier, we used to quarantine workers coming from neighbouring cities in Haryana and Punjab, but now we have given companies the liberty to ferry their workers back and forth. We also facilitated the return of labour from Himachal villages.
IE: Your government collected over Rs 78 crore as Covid relief fund but has spent only a fraction.
Jai Ram Thakur: We are spending prudently. We needed PPEs, N-95 masks, ventilators etc, and we have them all. We spent around Rs 13 crore on essentials, and on bringing back our people stranded in other states. Now we have to spend in a planned manner on infrastructure as well.
IE: Has the PPE scam that led to the resignation of Himachal BJP chief Dr Rajeev Bindal dented the government?
Jai Ram Thakur: These things do leave an impact. I want to make it clear that the entire episode is about a conversation between two people that went viral. I came to know of it at 10 in the morning and by the afternoon an FIR had been registered; by the evening the director of health services was arrested. We acted as swiftly as we could. The other man who was in the conversation was also quizzed, and later arrested. The investigation is on and I don’t want to comment on it.
But as far as procurement is concerned, the PPE kits that we bought, other states bought at similar or higher rates. There is no dishonesty in purchase. But two men were talking about give and take. That is all. From the government angle, the director health was asking for money and we acted on it. I don’t think other states act so quickly. The opposition made it a big issue despite our prompt action.
It is a sensitive issue. In this time of pandemic, there can’t be a greater sin than trying to make a quick buck when the lives of people are in danger. Such an action it is not worthy of mercy.
Our party president resigned on moral grounds. He said that since one of the men in the recording was associated with him, he would quit. He has set an example. But it is wrong to do politics on this.
IE: What about Cabinet expansion that is long due?
Jai Ram Thakur: We are ready but our priority is Covid. However, if the party high command gives us the go-ahead, we will think about it.
IE: As a first-time chief minister, did Corona come as a big challenge?
Jai Ram Thakur: I am learning a lot from this pandemic. Even for senior CMs, it’s a never-before experience. It is very difficult time but I have learnt a lot.
IE: You are considered mild.
Jai Ram Thakur: I may be of mild disposition like many other people from my state, but I crack the whip when required. There are so many examples of wrongdoing in Himachal when newspapers wrote reams but no action was taken. I took a stand and acted strongly.
IE: Was Bindal’s resignation a fallout of your stand?
Jai Ram Thakur: His resignation has nothing to do with my stand. I took action based on the audio. The party high command spoke to him, I wasn’t asked whether his resignation should be taken or not. We just wanted to know why is DHS (director of health services) asking for money and from whom? It is every essential to find out the truth.
Himachal has performed very well in these times of Covid. As per a recent survey, Himachal has been rated No 1 among NDA-ruled states.
It is unfortunate that there are people who are doing politics during this pandemic.
IE: How long will you keep your borders sealed?
The cases are yet to peak in the country. This will carry on for a few months, we have to mentally prepare ourselves to live with corona. We will continue with the restrictions for this month, and then we will review the situation and see if we can give any relaxations. Tourists may have to wait a while, but as soon as the situation improves, we will be the first to welcome visitors.
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